This time of year, most museums and historic sites put up a Christmas tree which they endeavor to make relevant by decorating it to a certain date–a Victorian tree, a Civil War tree, or a 1940s tree, for example. Usually a docent or placard will say something like, “The Christmas tree was an old German tradition with roots in the Middle Ages,” or, “. . . with roots in the pagan festivals that dated back to the time of ancient Rome.” There is no evidence for either statement. No records from the Middle Ages or earlier mention or portray a Christmas tree.
Some cite the old tradition of a paradise tree as a plausible ancestor to the Christmas tree, but the link sounds weak to me. Judge for yourself: The paradise tree was a standard stage prop in one of the popular religious plays (called mystery plays), the one about Adam and Eve. It was hung, appropriately enough, with what passed for red apples. Although it would seem an oxymoron, December 24 was, in those years, commonly celebrated as Adam and Eve’s birthday—thus their association with Christmas. Those who see the paradise tree as the precursor to our Christmas tree claim, with some logic if no proof, that the apples evolved into our round ornaments.
The earliest hint of the Christmas tree custom can be found in 1561 in a sternly worded Alsatian (German) prohibition that forbade anyone to “have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length.” Whether this was a fire precaution, a conservation measure, a religious prohibition, or something entirely different, we will probably never know, but authorities wouldn’t have passed a law against excessive Christmas trees if people hadn’t been putting them in their homes. A few decades later in 1605, one year before the Jamestown adventurers sailed to Virginia, the first description of a decorated Christmas tree shows up–also in Alsace. “At Christmas they set up fir-trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.”
The custom spread slowly among wealthy, upperclass Germans—it was certainly not common in average homes. Nor was it popular with everyone. One German minister in Strasbourg deplored the frivolous practice: “Among other trifles with which the people often occupy the Christmas time more than with God’s word, is also the Christmas or fir tree, which they erect in the house, and hang with dolls and sugar and thereupon shake and cause to lose its bloom. Where the habit comes from, I know not. It is a bit of child’s play . . . Far better were it for the children to be dedicated to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ.”
The Christmas tree custom originated in the German Rhineland (although Strasbourg is now on the France side of the border), probably in the 1500s. It may be older than that, but the proof is lacking. (Claims about Latvia or Estonia having the first documented Christmas tree in 1510 or thereabouts are hard to verify; even if they prove solid, the premise remains the same, as these were Germanic people too, especially in the Baltic port cities.)